x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

France urged to scrap street names glorifying slave trade

DiversCités, a group intent on persuading France to fully recognise its role in Europe's slave trade, tries to persuade ports to change street names.

PARIS // On board French ships with names that hinted at friendship and freedom, some three million Africans crossed the Atlantic between the 17th and 19th centuries as part of the European slave trade. Louis XIV regulated the trade, and the father of François-René de Chateaubriand, the founder of French romanticism, was among those who later became heavily involved in it.

For the 18 French ports most closely implicated in the trade, this traffic of human beings is a part of history they would probably prefer to forget. But a campaign run by DiversCités, a group bringing together people of different backgrounds intent on persuading France to recognise more fully its role in Europe's slave trade, is trying to ensure that they do not. Today, the group will stage the last in a series of demonstrations aimed at persuading some of those ports to change the names of streets that commemorate the shipowners who profited during an ignoble period of French history.

Having already taken their campaign to Bordeaux, La Rochelle and Nantes - the French port most active in the trade - supporters of DiversCités are in Le Havre to raise public awareness and collect signatures for a petition. Next stop will be Paris, where the group plans to lobby politicians and opinion-makers. Three years after Jacques Chirac, then president, declared May 10 a national day of remembrance for the victims of slavery, and eight years after the country passed a law declaring the practice to be a crime against humanity, Karfa Diallo, the president of DiversCités, contends the French establishment still has more to do.

Some 90,000 slaves crossed the Atlantic in ships that picked them up on the African coast after sailing from Le Havre. A glance at the Wikipedia internet entry for the bustling Normandy port reveals an impressive list of writers, artists, composers and poets born there, but makes no mention of the slaves whose contributions to the city's past were somewhat murkier. Shipowners such as the Eyriés, Lestorey de Boulongne and Begouen families are among those remembered in Le Havre street names that Mr Diallo describes as an affront to the memory of the victims of slavery, their descendants and Africans in general.

"We do not hold present day residents of these ports culpable for what happened in the past," said Mr Diallo, who comes from Senegal and has lived in France for about 20 years. "But it is shocking that streets should continue to honour people deeply involved in what is now recognised as a crime against humanity. That crime was committed, no matter what period, and it is a scandal, and quite inexcusable, to commemorate the perpetrators."

Mr Diallo, 38, is urging decision-makers, from the president, Nicolas Sarkozy, to city mayors, to accept that if France is serious about the integration of its large population of African immigrants, it must make gestures of the sort demanded by DiversCités, also known as the European Slave Trade Memorial Foundation. The group is pressing for monuments to be erected in key ports in acknowledgement of their slave-trading histories.

No city has so far agreed to change a single name. In Bordeaux, which has the greatest number of streets named after slave traders, the campaign has encountered stiff opposition from civic leaders headed by Alain Juppé, the major and a former French prime minister. They maintain that the families remembered in such locations as rue Saige made many contributions to the city that had nothing to do with human trafficking, and that the cost of a memorial would not be justified given that the city already has a museum dedicated to this aspect of its past.

But Mr Diallo says France has sought glory in its definitive abolition of slavery in 1848 without adequately recognising its role in activities that continued for more than half a century after the French Revolution. He claims French repentance compares unfavourably with that shown in other European countries, including Britain and the Netherlands, though Tony Blair, then British prime minister, faced criticism in 2007 when he called slavery a "profoundly shameful occurrence -" but stopped short of formally apologising for Britain's role.

An American historian, Douglas Harper, has noted that as late as 1820, many Europeans were horrified by reports of a chase by a British cruiser that prompted the crew of a French slave ship, La Jeune Estele, to throw overboard barrels that each contained girls aged 12 to 14. French public opinion "blamed the British", he wrote. The DiversCités campaign has had a mixed reception in Le Havre. A local newspaper, Havre Dimanche, gave prominence to the issue with extensive coverage across two pages and a montage of front-page images of what the headline called the "streets of shame".

Perhaps embarrassingly for the town hall, one of the offending streets names in Le Havre honours a former mayor, Jules Masurier, whose fleet of ships used for slave trafficking included one called Philanthropist. But the mayor, Antoine Rufenacht, a member of France's ruling centre-right UMP party, has made clear his opposition to the demands presented by DiversCités. He told the Havre Dimanche that the city had resolved 14 years ago to reject all moves to rename streets, a practice that created "huge inconvenience" for residents.

"I have no intention of raking over the ashes of our city's past," he said. "I have little taste for self-examination and repentance." @Email:crandall@thenational.ae